Vietnam: The Lessons of War

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine

“On the long thin coast of Vietnam,” wrote John K. Fairbank in the last issue of this paper, “we are sleeping in the same bed the French slept in even though we dream different dreams.”

The dreams of course are very different but so are the beds and the dreamers themselves. Let us compare them and see when the end of the night may come.

Nothing could be more valuable for American leaders at the moment than a close examination of the disastrous errors made by the French in Indo-China from 1945 to 1956. To know the faults of a friend may not cure one’s own, but from France’s experience America might well learn something of what has gone so dreadfully wrong in Vietnam today.

The French had three great dreams for Indo-China and each led them into a different and more ugly phase of the war. At first, in 1946, they clung briefly to the dream of re-establishing their prewar empire in Indo-China. Indeed, for one hopeful moment they seemed to be on the verge of a promising new colonial policy: General Leclerc, sent out to “reconquer” the territory, decided instead to negotiate with the Vietnam revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Leclerc recognized Ho’s Vietnam as a “free state,” connected with France, but controlling its own diplomacy, army, and finances. This was the first agreement made between a European colonial power and the Asian revolution—and one of the shortest-lived and saddest in retrospect. For within weeks the intrigues of colonialists in Saigon and Paris and extremists among the Vietminh and its nationalist allies succeeded in scraping it. The way was now open for France to plunge into full-scale colonial war. But it soon became clear to everybody that this would have been a hopeless venture, doomed from the start by the half-ruined state of France, the lack of an air force and navy, and the disapproval of the Russians and Americans.

At this point the French conceived their second Indo-Chinese dream which led them into a second war, lasting from 1948 to 1951. Now they would transform their colonial struggle into a Civil War. Against Ho’s Vietminh they would set in opposition the “independent” Emperor Bao Dai, encouraging him to cultivate his own anti-Communist but nationalist leadership—a policy described by the distinguished scholar Paul Mus as “nationalist counter fire.”

Perhaps it might have succeeded if the nationalists had been given a chance to make it work. But their power and prestige and autonomy were always limited. While Vietnamese and French troops died courageously, Bao Dai pre-occupied himself with tiger hunting, his ministers with profiteering. The Vietminh methodically liquidated Bao Dai’s officials, dominated the countryside, and organized its soldiers into divisions soon after the Chinese Communists arrived on the Northern Frontier in 1950.

After this decisive event and the outbreak of the Korean War, France dreamed once again of transforming the nature…

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